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Full text of "Men Of Mathematics"

HEN OF MATHEMATICS
laying eggs of his own and cackling about them that he had no
time to examine the veritable roc's egg which the modest Abel
had deposited in the nest. Hachette> a mere pot-washer of a
mathematician, presented Abel's Memoir on a general property
of a very extensive doss of transcendental functions to the Paris
Academy of Sciences on 10 October 1826. This is the work
which Legendre later described in the words of Horace as
'monumentum aere perennius', and the 500 years' work which
Hennite said Abel had laid out for future generations of mathe-
maticians. It is one of the crowning achievements of modern
mathematics.
What happened to it? Legendre and Cauchy were appointed
as referees. Legendre was seventy-four, Cauchy thirty-nine.
The veteran was losing his edge, the captain was in bis self-
centred prime. Legendre complained (letter to Jacobi, 9 April
1829) that fiwe perceived that the memoir was barely legible; it
was written in ink almost white, the letters badly formed; it
was agreed between us that the author should be asked for a
neater copy to be read.' What an alibi! Cauchy took the
memoir home, mislaid it, and forgot all about it.
To match this phenomenal feat of forgetfulness we have to
imagine an Egyptologist mislaying the Rosetta Stone. Only by
a sort of miracle was the memoir unearthed after Abel's death.
Jacobi heard of itfroni Legendre, with whom Abel corresponded
after returning to Norway, and in a letter dated 14 March 1829
Jacobi exclaims, *What a discovery is this of Mr AbePsl ...
Did anyone ever see the like? But how comes it that this discov-
ery, perhaps the most important mathematical discovery that
has been made in our Century, having been communicated to
your Academy two years ago, has escaped the attention of your
colleagues?* The enquiry reached Norway* To make a long story
short, the Norwegian consul at Paris raised a diplomatic row
about the missing manuscript and Cauchy dug it up in 1830.
Finally it was printed, but not till 1841, in the Memoires
es par divers sacants & FAcademie roydle de$ sciences de
France, voL 7, pp. 176-264. To crown this epic in
porno of crass incompetence, the editor, or the printers, or both
between them, succeeded in losing the manuscript before the
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